The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

July 13, 2007

Judge: Wrestled with case

HERMITAGE — In his 28-page opinion and order, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence F. McVerry, Pittsburgh, called the Layshock family’s lawsuit against Hermitage School District and three administrators “an important and difficult case.”

McVerry had to balance Justin Layshock’s free-speech rights — he created an unflattering myspace.com profile of his former principal, Eric W. Trosch — with the “right and responsibility of a public school to maintain an environment conducive to learning.”

To complicate matters further, the case “began with purely out-of-school conduct which subsequently carried over into the school setting.”

It’s difficult to fit the facts of the case into previous court rulings on public school disciplinary authority and appropriate constitutional boundaries, he said.

“The threshold, and most difficult inquiry is whether the school administration was authorized to punish Justin for creating the profile,” McVerry said. “The mere fact that the internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to become censors of the world-wide web. Public schools are vital institutions, but their reach is not unlimited. Schools have an undoubted right to control conduct within the scope of their activities, but they must share the supervision of children with other, equally vital institutions such as families, churches, community organizations and the judicial system.”

Looking at Justin’s profile, McVerry said, “This court has no difficulty concluding ... that Justin’s profile is lewd, profane and sexually inappropriate,” McVerry said, but added later: “There is no evidence that Justin engaged in any lewd or profane speech while in school.”

He also added that the site is not obscene because “it does not appeal to prurient interest or portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way.”

Justin showed his profile to students in Spanish class, but that was not known by officials until after he had been disciplined, McVerry said.

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